Home » Feature » Jamming the classical guitar with Indian percussion instruments – Scotland based ensemble leader Simon Thacker

Jamming the classical guitar with Indian percussion instruments – Scotland based ensemble leader Simon Thacker

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“Something about both Hindustani and Carnatic classical music has always spoken to me on a profound level. They move me, excite me and open a world of possibilities,” says Simon Thacker, Scotland based classical guitar player and a fine exponent of Indian classical music.

Simon believes that the genre has impacted his musical concepts immensely. Due to his obsession with Jimi Hendrix, Simon first picked up the guitar at the age of 10. He would go on to learn western classical music early on. His love for exploring and immersing himself in cultures from around the world, introduced him to the doyens of Indian classical music, Girija Devi and M. S. Subhalakshmi. Indian classical music opened the doors to a completely different aural portal for Simon. Since then he has been expanding on his inspirations from the subcontinent.

classical guitar
(Simon Thacker’s Svara Kanti)

He is a BMus (Hons) in classical guitar performance from the Edinburgh Napier University. The classical guitar has a very distinctive, poetic sound. You can only bend a note up a semitone. It does not have the metallic resonances of sitar or sarod. It really is not ideal to play Indian classical music.

“This is great, because I have no choice but to find my own way with the musicians I perform with, and create my own music. My aim was to create music that goes beyond ‘east’ and ‘west’ in the pursuit of a new third direction genuinely of itself. I am not interested in fusion. I am not interested in just putting things together. That often has a homogenising effect in a middle ground. I want to explore the stratosphere, the extremities!” asserted Simon.

Indian percussion with the classical guitar

Being a classical guitar player, he has a liking towards the sitar and veena. The bansuri and the sarangi are the other Indian classical instruments that he fancies. He has incorporated varied instruments like the ghatam, khanjira, mridangam among others.

“I must say that Indian percussion instruments and classical guitar go together beautifully. I never tire of exploring the combination of tabla and guitar. Both are created by direct contact of skin on the instrument and capable of both near limitless tonal nuance and ferocious attack,” quipped Simon.

His ensemble, ‘Svara-Kanti’ started out as a quartet and has now grown into a community of four different lineups. His Carnatic influenced quartet consists of with Neyveli B Venkatesh on mridangam, N Guruprasad on ghatam, KV Gopalakrishnan playing the kanjira and himself. He also leads a Punjabi folk lineup with singers Afsana Khan from Bathinda, the UK’s Japjit Kaur and Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska. His album ‘Trikala’ features some of the most gifted performers of Baul music from India and Bangladesh along with Punjabi folk.

According to Simon, he is living his dream of connecting with so many great performers, writing for them, rehearsing together, performing and recording.

“It is important to find people who are searching for the same things. People who can revel in going beyond their comfort zone and be in that place where the most exciting discoveries happen. Some people do not like that and long for the familiar. I have heard it been described as soft vs hard creativity, stylist vs creator. Well Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti is definitely the latter,” said Simon.

Indian music in foreign lands

His music is a reflection of the western world opening up to the sound of Indian classical music. There is a much wider depth of knowledge and people know more about it. There are some great festivals all year round. The big Indian diaspora conducts events for the community and could reach a wider audience with some promotional tweaking.

“My perception is that art forms that seem superficially more demanding like classical music have to fight especially hard to get attention. That is the nature of our reliance on technology that encourages superficial engagement. I think if the quality is there and people listen, even in a semi receptive state, then they will be amazed by the new worlds opening up before them,” explained Simon.

adding,

“I think there is massive potential. All it takes is the right personality with the right circumstances and it could go stratospheric again, like it did with Ravi Shankar and The Beatles. Through social and mass media there is much wider exposure. Of course there are challenges. It is the case for every art form that puts depth and quality over commercial considerations. The media is under pressure to survive so there is less space in the traditional mainstream.”

The 4 in 1 man

Being a composer, classical guitarist, improviser and ensemble leader all rolled into one can be ‘tricky’. For Simon all the roles are mutually dependent. He feels if he could not improvise then he would be in a musical straight-jacket of just pre-written composition.

“If I was not a composer I would be unable to realise the visions I have. I would be much more static. If I was not a guitarist I would not have the means to bring my visions to life and I would be relying purely on other people. I design my compositions and re-imaginations with the spirit and essence of the people I am writing for in mind. The path I am on requires me to be all four so I am constantly trying to get better at each. All four are fundamental to my life’s journey,” explained Simon while signing off.

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